California Legislators – Not Even You Can Stop a Trend

California Legislators – Not Even You Can Stop a Trend

In 2019, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill, AB5 “The Gig Economy Law.” It redefined “employee” in an effort to try and dramatically reduce “contract workers.” This law is intended to force people who work to become ”employees” (of someone), and thereby receive more rights. Simultaneously it forces those who pay for work to become “employers” covering additional costs forced onto them by the legal definition of an “employee”. In other words, AB5 attempts to set back the advancement of the Gig Economy 30+ years. Last week, that law was put on hold by a California court, and California citizens will vote in November on whether requirements of AB5 should remain, or be repealed.

Go back to 1900 and there were very few “employees.” Most people just worked. But the industrial economy boomed, and with it the need to put people into factories. Showing up on time, doing a job, was crucial to the industrial economy – whether you were making car parts or pushing invoices around. We’ve all seen pictures of assembly lines in factories making shirts or lawn mowers, and assembly lines of gray steel desks where people manually processed documentation. Being an “employee” meant showing up and was central to developing the industrial economy, where lots of cogs were needed for the machine to work.

 

There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an Idea whose time has come.

Victor Hugo

But we’re not in an industrial economy any more. Since 1990 we’ve been transforming into the information economy (or the knowledge economy, pick your preferred term.) Automation has replaced labor, with robots making trucks while computers process documents. People don’t stand in assembly lines – machines do. Work doesn’t happen with our hands, it happens with our brains – and machines do the manual labor. Managers don’t manage people, they manage processes. As a result, companies have been realizing they need a lot fewer people.

No longer can employers consider employees for life. Rather, companies need flexibility to adjust to the fast paced marketplace. Owning resources, including labor, can feel like dragging an anchor along with your business. Yes, people are needed people to do things. But every business leader knows that the brainpower needed today is probably not what was needed yesterday and not what will be needed tomorrow. Businesses need to access the knowledge workers they need quickly and shift their resources fast in order to meet changing market conditions- agility not stability. Relationships are transactional, not societal.

This is actually good for everyone. A hundred years ago studios controlled everything about movie making, including actor salaries. Many actors (i.e. Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney) made dozens of movies, yet had very little money. But that lock was broken, and it allowed actors to sell their services to the highest bidder – leading to today’s “star economy” where actors make what they can get producers to pay. There is a set scale to employment, but every actor is a free agent able to negotiate their terms of “employment” for each project.

Major league sports is the same. Where once club owners dictated pay, today players negotiate across teams for the best contracts. It allows for negotiating the best price for the best service in an open, flexible economy. If you’re good at playing, or coaching, you negotiate with the teams to get your best price for your services.

Uber and Lyft aren’t much different from studios and sports franchisees. Once, taxi companies controlled the market. All of us spent time standing in lines, waiting on cabs, that too often were dirty and broken. Market access was controlled by taxi tokens, and so was pricing. So service deteriorated to as low as possible, while customers stood in line on Friday night hoping to get a cab home from the theatre. But Uber unleashed the market. Resources could be added, or removed, by market participants. Pricing was determined by the buyers and sellers. And pricing variability allowed for quality variations as drivers tried to acquire repeat business. Surge pricing meant you could get a ride on New Year’s eve, meeting the customer needs and with pricing to meet the supplier’s need for expanding short-term capacity.

You might not think of Kim Kardashian, Tom Brady and an Uber driver as gig workers. But they are. And this hasn’t been lost on most of us. As publishers have disappeared, writers now must sell their research and writing independently, no longer expecting a set salary and benefits from newspaper owners. Virtual office assistants abound. For almost 30 years we’ve been building a flourishing economy of “gig workers” who are looking to match their skills with market needs. Uber and Lyft are just platforms created to help match the sellers and buyers (as is FiveRR for graphics and other office services.) Their success has been due to meeting a very real market need.

Uber and Lyft have helped the trend toward individual economic independence grow, not created the trend. When you see managers, who work for a set wage, working 24x7x365 on their iPhone or other mobile device, what’s the difference between them and a “gig worker?” When it comes to getting the work done, nothing. Just how they are paid – and some serious illusions about the employee/employer compact that are wholly out of date. Increasingly, we are recognizing we are better off to maximize the value of our services working independently, and seeking out projects that can use our services as contractors, rather than going through the burden of “hiring” and “firing” across “employers” in a fast changing world. Uber didn’t put people out of work, the knowledge economy redefined work. Uber doesn’t create low pay, it just offers a market that allows for flexible capacity and variable pricing. Uber offers a platform matching buyers and sellers. And that’s something we need MORE as adaptability demands keep rising.

California legislators can see that work has changed. But their approach was backward. They are trying to push everyone – both workers and business people – into an outdated model. An industrial model of employment. That will never work. It won’t work because the economy has changed, the world has changed, needs have changed, and these trends will not reverse. Trying to rewind the clock will only cause employers to abandon markets, as Uber and Lyft did when they said they would leave California. Solutions must address trends for independence and accessibility, not try to apply 100 year old definitions to a modern problem.

Contract work is here to stay. It’s been growing for 30 years. What’s needed are better Gig Marketplace tools to help business people find the resources they need, for workers to find projects that fit their skills and that meet their societal needs.

The old model created the term “benefits” for societal needs comprised of unemployment pay, retirement pay, hazard compensation, health care, etc. and forced those costs onto the “employer.” In much of the world today these costs are born by the government, but in the USA they are still borne by “employers”. In a contractor relationship, no one is required to cover the costs of those benefits. In most businesses now, “employer” is a term with a lot less meaning since businesses need much more agility than they did in an industrial economy. During this transition from industrial to gig economy, those societal needs are not being met effectively, leading to individual suffering and much, much higher costs to society.

New solutions are required to meet these needs – instead of forcing the old model onto a new economy. Legislators and regulators need to recognize that old approaches need to be revamped.  All of these problems need new solutions – not some effort to force the industrial model onto platform providers that do little more than match needs with skills.

And this requirement for change applies to labor representation as well. The Department of Labor is an industrial era dinosaur that has little to no value in a world of work-from-home employees, outsourced manufacturing plants and easily available offshore production. Industrial era labor unions make no sense when we don’t work on assembly lines. Yet, unions are a very important part of entertainment and professional sports. Because in the latter markets leaders have adapted the union’s services to meet modern needs. Whether they realize it or not, gig workers need help with representation. But that representation must be a lot more sophisticated at helping workers than the throngs of attorneys at the AFL-CIO.

Californians would be suffer negative impacts if Uber and Lyft leave the market. And they realize that. But the solution is not the blunt axe of AB5. Thus, the law will almost surely be reversed in the next election. Then, hopefully, California will step up to the challenge of leading the country with new approaches that meet gig worker needs – expanding their markets and opportunities while building social solutions to every day needs.

TRENDS MATTER. If you align with trends your business can do GREAT! Are you aligned with trends? What are the threats and opportunities in your strategy and markets? Do you need an outsider to assess what you don’t know you don’t know? You’ll be surprised how valuable an inexpensive assessment can be for your future business (https://adamhartung.com/assessments/)

Give us a call or send an email.  Adam@Sparkpartners.com

WILL KODAK SUCCESSFULLY PIVOT INTO PHARMACEUTICALS? I DOUBT IT.

WILL KODAK SUCCESSFULLY PIVOT INTO PHARMACEUTICALS? I DOUBT IT.

Yesterday (7/28/20), President Trump surprised a LOT of people announcing that via the Defense Production Act (DPA) the US government is going to give Kodak $765 million to make pharmaceuticals. The tie to current COVID-19 pandemic issues, for which the Act was invoked, is at best tenuous. Somehow the announcement seems to be more about moving pharma production back to the USA. Which is why it left me, and a lot of others, asking “why would you pick Kodak?”

Everyone knows the Kodak story. Great innovator, makes the Brownie and creates an entirely new market called “amateur photography.” From an era when almost nobody had a picture of themselves, Kodak made pictures commonplace. And the company was a wild success. The US Department of Defense asked Kodak to help them develop a way to send photos digitally from satellites to earth, and after spending a lot of taxpayer money Kodak invents digital photography. A very happy DOD allowed Kodak to keep the civilian rights to digital photography. Locked into the profits from film sales, Kodak never develops the products or market and licensed away the technology. Which doomed Kodak to the world of business history books as one of the classic business screw-ups of all time, riding film sales to death and missing the next big market wave.

Over the last 20 years there’s been nothing new to excite anyone about Kodak. They tried launching a blockchain technology-based business for photographers to manage picture rights. Way too late and poorly conceived, and lacking any demand, that went nowhere. Lacking any new ideas leadership grabbed the lightest “shiny new thing” and launched Kodak’s own cryptocurrency “KodakCoin.” Missed it? So did everyone else. In a word, Kodak was going nowhere.

I always recommend watching trends, and then pivoting your strategy to be on trend. So why didn’t the blockchain and cryptocurrency “pivots” work? Simply, Kodak brought nothing to the marketplace. They didn’t identify an un-met or under-met need and try to fill it with a better solution. Kotak just tried to jump into some shiny technology and throw it onto the marketplace hoping someone would think they needed it. They didn’t. So those pivots failed.

Big companies can pivot. IBM pivoted from a mainframe hardware company into a software and services company. And that worked because IBM understood customers had un-met and under-met needs for enterprise applications and Software-As-A-Service (SAAS) use. IBM moved from making expensive, over-developed hardware to meeting a very real customer need, and the pivot revitalized a nearly obsolete company.

Even before IBM, Singer was once a manufacturer of sewing machines. As the 1960s ended home sewing was in a tailspin, and commercial sewing was all going to Asia. Singer had nothing new to offer, while it’s primary competition (Brother) was innovating gobs of new features to make sewing better, faster, easier and cheaper. So Singer sold (all its products, manufacturing, brand name, etc) to Brother. Leadership studied the marketplace and identified a very big, growing and under-met need for defense electronics suppliers. Leadership carefully acquired leading companies with new technologies in forward looking infrared, heads up displays and others to build a leading-edge defense contractor. Note, they first identified an under-met need. Second, (via acquisition) they brought to market a lot of product innovation to improve customer performance in ways not previously utilized. The pivot was built on under-met needs and innovation.

So what is the plan for Kodak? Kodak knows nothing about pharmaceuticals, and their understanding of “chemistry” (to the extent it still exists) has NO application in pharma. (Ever heard of a joint venture called DuPont/Merck designed to apply DuPont chemistry expertise to pharma? I didn’t think so. It didn’t survive.) The plan is to build a company to make the most generic “pharmaceutical ingredients.” Not blockbuster pharmaceuticals. Literally, the very most generic ingredients. Not better ingredients. Not cheaper ingredients. Just make what already exists – and almost assuredly at a higher cost.

These Kodak ingredients are not innovative. Making them is not innovative. The reason “big pharma” doesn’t make these is because they are GENERIC products of low value, and production has moved to China and India where costs are lower. There is no innovation in these products. And Kodak has NO PLAN to add any innovation. None. Not in products, not in manufacturing process, not in markets served or customer service. Nope. Kodak plans to take 3 to 4 YEARS (any idea how fast markets move these days) to develop a plant to make a generic product that is sold on the basis of cost.

The only way this works, at all, is if the government forces, by regulation, U.S. pharma companies to buy from Kodak (in 3 to 4 years when they supposedly can make the stuff.) Otherwise, why pay the higher price? Today, American politicians constantly decry the high U.S. drug prices. So we are to expect that $765 million of taxpayer money will be spent on a plant, to make a generic compound, readily available in the world today, at a higher price, that will then be forced into American pharma products making them EVEN MORE EXPENSIVE! This is exactly how America ended up with the Bath Iron Works to make Navy ships which are the MOST expensive in the world – and thus wholly non-competitive in commercial ship production.

Does this not sound …… problematic? If we need U.S. based manufacturing for these products every single pharma company in the USA could open a plant faster, manufacturing at lower cost than Kodak, and with no quality or other regulatory concerns. There literally is no need for Kodak to become a supplier in this supply chain. And – absolutely no reason the U.S. taxpayer should be expected to teach Kodak how to “pivot” into becoming a new company. If the White House wants to use the D.P.A. to make more generic pharma compounds then it can push [insert any pharma company name you like here] to do it like they pushed G.M. to make ventilators!

Net/net – this is a pivot, and Kodak desperately needs to pivot. But this will not be a successful pivot. Because it is not targeting an unmet or under-met need. It is not utilizing innovation to create a better solution for meeting customer needs. This is making a generic product, that is readily available, at a higher cost than it is available today. Who wants this?

I’m sure Kodak shareholders are happy. Today. But this is a train wreck. Don’t expect this plant to ever make it to fruition, as the pharma companies will unwind this deal long before Kodak makes anything. And if we’re lucky, taxpayers will get some of their money back. But who knows, because this is a really stupid idea.

TRENDS MATTER. If you align with trends your business can do GREAT! Are you aligned with trends? What are the threats and opportunities in your strategy and markets? Do you need an outsider to assess what you don’t know you don’t know? You’ll be surprised how valuable an inexpensive assessment can be for your future business (https://adamhartung.com/assessments/)

Give us a call or send an email.  Adam@sparkpartners.com

Electric Cars are Not a Fad, and They Matter

Electric Cars are Not a Fad, and They Matter

As the pandemic dropped on the USA with full force mid-April the price of oil dropped to less than $0. OK, it was something of a fluke. Demand dropped so fast that supply couldn’t fall fast enough, so oil was flowing into refineries and tanks and pipelines so fast that nobody knew where to put it – and that resulted in suppliers having to pay someone to take their oil.

But… the point was very real. Oil prices depend on demand – every bit as much as supply. Even though for a generation we’ve taken growing oil demand for granted, and focused on how to create additional supply, it is a fact that NOW declining demand will limit the value of oil and gas (which is, after all, a commodity.) The TREND has changed course, with demand in the USA barely, or not, growing – and globally demand growth primarily all in Asia (mostly China.) Overall, supply growth has beaten demand growth by a wide margin, and prices are not only low now – they will likely go lower. Even oil company CEOs are predicting US production will decline – but to lower demand

In 2015, I predicted that Tesla could put a big hurt on Exxon. Most people thought that was a joke. Tesla was a fraction the size of GM, and “small potatoes” in the car industry. Meanwhile Exxon was one of the world’s largest oil producers and refiners. That really would be a very small David smacking a very big Goliath – and with a very small rock. But what I pointed out in 2015 was that traditional analysts predicted a very gradual growth in electric cars, and a continued growth in petroleum powered cars, and pretty much constant growth in oil & gas consumption with economic growth. In other words,analysts were using old assumptions all around and expecting only a tiny impact from a few weirdos buying electric cars.

But I asked, what if those assumptions were wrong? In 2015, the world was awash in oil, inventories were then at record levels, and electric car sales were taking off. And the truth was, a lot was happening to reduce demand for oil. Renewable energy programs, conservation, and a change in economic activity from basic manufacturing and commodity processing to a knowledge economy. These trends were all putting big dampers on oil demand. And electric auto sales were poised for a big boom. I predicted demand for oil would drop substantially, inventories would skyrocket and industry problems would worsen as prices cratered.

Uh-hum – what was the price of oil in April?

In 2009, I made the case that electric cars were a small base, but that geometric demand growth would make them an important economic impact . Today, most Americans still think that’s the case. In 2009 less than 100,000 new cars were electric. But by 2015, over 1 million electric cars had been sold. Then, with the help of game changers like the Tesla Model 3 in 2019 sales exceeded 7 million! A 7-fold increase in 5 years, or nearly 50%/year market growth!!Global stock of electric passenger cars

Americans aren’t aware of this phenomenon largely because the big growth centers are outside the USA. Where electrics are ~2% of US car sales, in some European countries they are well over 10% of the market. Even in China they represent over 5% of sales!Global stock of EV by region

Remember what I said above about demand growth depending on China? Look again at who’s buying the most electric cars.

Lessons:
1 – Never think your product is beyond attack by market forces. Be paranoid.
2 – Very small, fringe competition can sneak up and steal your market faster than you think.
3 – Fringe changers don’t have to take a huge market share to make a BIG impact on your market and pricing.
4 – Disruptive events favor the upstarts, who are on trend, and hurt big incumbents, who depend on “business as usual.”
5 – Don’t expect markets to “return to normal.” Markets always move forward, with trends.
6 – Don’t plan from the past, plan for the future – and pay attention to disruptions, they can break you.

TRENDS MATTER. If you align with trends your business can do GREAT! Are you aligned with trends? What are the threats and opportunities in your strategy and markets? Do you need an outsider to assess what you don’t know you don’t know? You’ll be surprised how valuable an inexpensive assessment can be for your future business (https://adamhartung.com/assessments/)

Give us a call or send an email.  Adam @Sparkpartners.com

Ignominious Ends- Sears and Malls

Ignominious Ends- Sears and Malls

TRENDS: Covid-19 has accelerated a lot of trends. Few more than retail. Oddly some people have taken the view that Covid-19 changed retail. Actually, it didn’t. The pandemic has merely accelerated trends that have been driving industry change for almost two decades.

Back in 2004, Eddie Lampert bought all the bonds of defunct Kmart and used those assets to do a merger with Sears – creating Sears Holdings that encompassed both brands. The day of announcement Chicago Tribune asked for my opinion, and famously I predicted the merger would be a disaster.  Clearly both Kmart and Sears were far, far off trends in retail, both were already struggling – and neither had a clue about emerging e-commerce.

Why in 2004 would I predict Sears would fail? The #1 trend in retail was e-commerce, which was all about individualized customer experience, problem solving for customer needs — and only, finally fulfillment. By increasing “scale” – primarily owning a lot more real estate – this new organization would NOT be more competitive. Walmart was already falling behind the growth curve, and everyone in retail was ignoring the elephant in the room – Amazon.com. Loading up on a lot more real estate, more inventory, more employees, more supplier relationships and more community commitments – old ideas about how to succeed related to fulfillment – would hurt more than help. Retail was an industry in transition. All of these factors were boat anchors on future success, which relied on aggressively moving to greater internet use.

Unfortunately, Eddie Lampert as CEO was like most CEOs. He thought success would come from doing more of what worked in the past. Be better, faster, cheaper at what you used to do. In 2011 Sears asked its HQ town (Hoffman Estates) and the state (Illinois) for tax subsidies to keep the HQ there. Sears had built what was once the world’s once tallest building, named the Sears Tower. But many years earlier Sears left, the building was renamed, and Sears was becoming a ghost of itself. I pleaded with government officials to “let Sears go” since the money would be wasted. And it was clear by 2016, that Lampert and his team’s bias toward old retail approaches had only served to hurt Sears more and guarantee its failure. Now – in 2020 – Hoffman Estates has taken the embarrassing act of removing the Sears name from the town’s arena,  admitting Sears is washed up.

****

It was with a multi-year observation of trends that I told people in 2/2017 that retail real estate values would crumble . Now mall vacancies are at an 8 year high and 50% of mall department stores will permanently close within a year. We are “over-stored” and nothing will change the fast decline in retail real estate values. Who knows what will happen to all this empty space?

Trends led me in March 2017 to advise investors they should own NO traditional retail equities. Shortly after Sears filed bankruptcy Radio Shack and storied ToysRUs followed. And with the pandemic acting as gasoline fueling change, we’ve now seen the bankruptcies of Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, J Crew, Forever 21, GNC and Chuck e Cheese (but, really, weren’t you a bit surprised the last one was still even in business?) After 3 years of pre-Covid store closings, Industry pundits are finally predicting “record numbers of store closings”. And, after 15 years of predictions, I’m being asked by radio hosts to explain the impact of widespread failures of both local and national retailers ( ).view of a closed mallIgnominious ends are abounding in retail. But – it was all very predictable. The trends were obvious years ago. If you were smart, you moved early to avoid asset traps as valuations declined. You also moved early to get on the bandwagon of trend leaders – like Amazon.com – so you too could succeed.

As we move forward, what will happen to your business? Will you build on trends to create a new future where growth abounds? Will you align your strategy with the future so you “skate to where the puck will be?” Or will you – like Sears and so many others – find an ignominious end to your organization? Will the signs change, or will the signs come down? The trends have never been stronger, the markets have never moved faster and the rewards have never been greater. It’s time to plan for the future, and build your strategy on trends (not what worked in the past.)

But don’t lose sight of the lesson. TRENDS MATTER. If you align with trends your business can do GREAT! Like Facebook. But if you don’t pay attention, and you miss a big trend (like demographic inclusion) the pain the market can inflict can be HUGE and FAST. Like Facebook. Are you aligned with trends? What are the threats and opportunities in your strategy and markets? Do you need an outsider to assess what you don’t know you don’t know? You’ll be surprised how valuable an inexpensive assessment can be for your future business (https://adamhartung.com/assessments/)

Give us a call or send an email.  Adam @Sparkpartners.com

Cost of Ignoring Trends- Facebook’s Fiasco

Cost of Ignoring Trends- Facebook’s Fiasco

In my recent “Rebooting Business” on-line conference I was asked if Black Lives Mattered and other protests should affect strategy. I said “of course!!” These demonstrations clearly show a segment of the marketplace with unserved and under-served needs. Needs so badly served people have taken to the streets!

Every organization needs to assess its strategy to determine if it is on this trend toward inclusion. Are you sensitive to the needs of these under-served segments? Or are you sloppily still out there with old stereo-tropes like the Aunt Jemima syrup – which Quaker Oats finally pulled. Do you know if your organization, products, suppliers, customers and communities are meeting market needs for inclusion? Or are you just assuming you’ll be OK?

Amazingly one of the biggest trend creating companies has demonstrated the cost of missing trends. Facebook is a remarkable company. Where MySpace failed, and countless others never created a marketplace, Facebook used its initial platform, then added Instagram, then Messenger, then WhatsApp to take an enormous lead in social media. Facebook built on trends in our desire to be mobile, and to communicate asynchronously, to attract billions of people to its platform – and as a result advertisers.

But…. Inexplicably…. the CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his leadership team have been tone-deaf to the events since George Floyd was killed. And they were remarkably blindsided, showing they truly weren’t prepared. Zuckerberg has long refused to even look for false information on Facebook – and never really considered removing it. Lies, falsehoods, misstatements – Facebook let people of all stripes (good, and very often bad) say anything they wanted on the platform. This wasn’t inclusion, it was allowing loud voices to present harmful content – and it was clearly disturbing a whole lot of people.

Now is the comeuppance. Advertisers have decided not to advertise on Facebook. They realize that their ads, presented next to false, and sometimes truly hateful, content gives the impression that they support this content. So, in droves, they have said their ad dollars will go somewhere else. Giant consumer goods companies Honda, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Diageo and Hershey as well as one of the world’s largest mobile providers Verizon, and mercantile suppliers North Face and Patagonia have joined retailers like Starbucks and REI as just some of the larger boycotters – out of over 100 on the growing list. So serious is this problem that some advertisers are “pausing” social media ads all together, suggesting another possible trend

Nobody can fight trends and hope to win. Nobody. No matter how big. And this is a sharp rebuke for one of the trendiest companies on the planet. That the leadership team didn’t see this coming is astonishing. In a late reversal, Facebook has made new efforts to identify hate content (including harmful posts by politicians), but that they didn’t react much quicker is just absurd. That they appeared to think they could platform political ads, and political content, and not have viewers associate Facebook with politics is downright bizarre. This has been the dumbest self-inflicted move by a big company in a very long time. And all they had to do to avoid this nightmare was admit that inclusion was a very big global trend that they had to build into their offering.

But don’t lose sight of the lesson. TRENDS MATTER. If you align with trends your business can do GREAT! Like Facebook. But if you don’t pay attention, and you miss a big trend (like demographic inclusion) the pain the market can inflict can be HUGE and FAST. Like Facebook. Are you aligned with trends? What are the threats and opportunities in your strategy and markets? Do you need an outsider to assess what you don’t know you don’t know? You’ll be surprised how valuable an inexpensive assessment can be for your future business https://adamhartung.com/assessments/

Microsoft:  Value Creation Is About New Markets and Growth – Not Defending Your Base

Microsoft: Value Creation Is About New Markets and Growth – Not Defending Your Base

People who follow my speaking and writing – including my over 400 Forbes columns – know that I preach the importance of growth. Successful organizations are agile – and agility is the sum of learning + adaptability. Smart organizations are constantly looking externally, gathering data, learning about markets and shifts – then structured to adopt those learnings into their business model and adapt the organization to new market needs.

Steve Ballmer was the antithesis of agility. For his entire career he knew only that Microsoft stock price post BallmerWindows and Office made all the money at Microsoft. So he kept investing in Windows and Office. He failed at everything else. False starts in phones, tablets, gaming – products came and went like ice cream cones on a hot August day. Ballmer laughed at the very notion of the iPhone ever being successful – while simultaneously throwing away $7.2B buying Nokia. Then there was $8.5B buying Skype. $400M buying the Borders Nook. Those were ridiculous acquisitions that just wasted shareholder money. To Ballmer, Microsoft’s future relied on maintaining Windows and Office.

So as the market went mobile, Ballmer kept over-investing. He spent billions launching Windows 8, which I predicted was obviously going to fail at growing the Windows market as early as 2012. And it was easy to predict that Win8 tablets were going to be a bust when launched in 2012 as well. But Ballmer was “all-in” on Windows and Office. He was completely locked-in, and unwilling to even consider any data indicating that the PC market was dying – effectively driving Microsoft over a cliff.

It was not hard to identify Steve Ballmer as the worst CEO in America in 2012. When Ballmer took over Microsoft it was worth $60/share. He drove that value down to $20. And the company valuation was almost unchanged his entire 14 years as CEO. He remained locked-in to trying to Defend & Extend PC sales, and it did Microsoft no good. But when the Board replaced Ballmer with Nadella the company moved quickly into growth in gaming, and especially cloud services. In just 6 years Nadella has improved the company’s value by 400%!!!

Success is NOT about defending the past. Success IS about growth. Don’t be locked in to what worked before. Focus on what markets want and need – learn how to understand these needs – and then adapt to giving customers new solutions. Don’t make the mistakes of Ballmer – be a Nadella to lead your organization into growth opportunities!

United Airlines – How Bad Strategy Created a Culture That Kills Puppies

United Airlines – How Bad Strategy Created a Culture That Kills Puppies

Do you remember the songs, and videos, from 2008 “United Breaks Guitars?” After United Airlines destroyed musician Dave Carroll’s guitar he chronicled the months-long journey he took trying to replace it. In the end, United told him “F**k you” as customer service blew him off completely. He went on to make a few million dollars with his songs and parody about the horrible experience. Because so many people felt they were abused like Mr. Carroll.

“United Breaks Guitars” was a hit because so many people related to the terrible customer experience on United. book united breaks guitars “The Unfriendly Skies” was the motto of customers, mocking the airlines “Friendly Skies” ads. It was clear that by 2008 United did not care about customers. Moving headlong to constantly lower operating costs, United built a culture that focused solely on efficiency, leading to terrible customer service, unhappy customers and employees that were a lot more worried about being yelled at by their bosses for not cutting costs than creating any customer satisfaction.

Things certainly haven’t changed. In 2017, United ejected a 69 year old physician from a plane, breaking his nose, knocking out his teeth and giving him a concussion. That created an uproar. Yet within a week United killed the world’s largest bunny rabbit in an airplane holding bin. But, even worse, last week United actually killed a puppy by forcing it be placed in an overhead bin. At least the dog United sent on a 1,000 mile unexpected flight to Japan survived, and the interviewed owner said he felt lucky the airline hadn’t killed his pet. Of course United refunded their money – which as you can imagine was a slap in the face to all these people who were so abused.

Unfortunately, United is just the worst of a bunch of bad airlines. Customer service really isn’t any better on Delta, American, JetBlue or Southwest. Saying these other airlines are better is just picking out a less heinous member of the Khmer Rouge Army.

STRATEGY MATTERS

This all goes back to deregulation. When President Carter allowed the airlines to charge as they like the industry really had no idea what it was going to do. There was chaos for years. But eventually consolidation kicked-in, and cutting cost was the only thing all 3 majors agreed upon. Buy more market share, as opposed to winning it with customer service, then slash the costs. This did the wonderfulness of leading all of them to file bankruptcy! Some twice! What a grand industry strategy!

eaten green olivesThen Chairman of American Airlines received Wall Street Journal front-page coverage for realizing people weren’t eating their olives in first class, so he ordered olives removed from the first class meals. He was cheered for saving $100K. But what folks missed was that he, and his peers leading the airlines, were systematically trying to figure out “how do we offer the least possible service.” By focusing on a strategy of lowering cost, and being doggedly determined in that strategy, soon nothing else mattered.

Today, there are no free meals in coach, and terrible meals in first class. Management angered employees into strikes and multi-year negotiations, beating down compensation and eliminating benefits leading to unhappiness so bad that in 2010 a Jet Blue flight attendant pulled the emergency exit and jumped out of the plane as he quit.

So, all the airlines in America stink. And, many domestic airlines in Europe, such as Ryan Air, have followed suit. The execs keep saying “all customers care about is price.” They use that excuse to create a culture so hostile to employees, and customers, that pretty soon employees are beating up customers and killing family pets (after charging extra to take the pet on the plane) and actually not caring.

Employees have become gestapos for the leadership – which has created a culture in which nobody wins. So flight attendants do as little as possible, because they don’t care about customers any more than leadership does. In 2017, a JetBlue attendant threw a family off flight because their toddler kicked the seat. When a woman complains about a child in seat next to her a Delta attendant throws her off the plane. And just last week when a 2 year old cries during boarding a Southwest attendant throws the child and her father off the plane.

Deregulation led to an oligopoly. Now, customers have no choice. Some of us fly almost every week on business, and it is pure hell. Nobody we deal with, from TSA to airport vendors to airline staff like customers. The culture has become “I’m abused, so you will be abused.” To fly is to succumb to being obsequious to ALL employees in your effort to not anger anyone, for fear they will deny you service. Or, worse, beat you up or kill your pet. But, honestly, there is nothing customers can do about it.

STRATEGY MATTERS

The leadership of the airlines, lacking regulation, implemented a strategy of “be low cost.” The result was creating a culture where employees routinely abuse customers in the process of trying to save a few dimes. If the next Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Reed Hastings showed up, do you think HR would hire them? Would the Board of Directors, so focused on the wrong strategy, consider any of them as CEO? The wrong strategy has led to the ruination of an entire industry, miserable employees, unhappy customers and marginal returns. It is a terrible culture.

So what is your strategy? Is your strategy creating the culture you want? Are you headed toward happy customers who want more of your product or service, and create growth? Or are you letting your lack of a forward-thinking strategy default you into operational cost cutting, and the movement toward a culture of misery that drives away employees, vendors and eventually customers?

Get Me an Innovation!

Get Me an Innovation!

Fast Company just published 3 common behaviors that kill innovation.  Congratulations!  The editors reinforce that most management behavior and best practices are lethal to innovation.

All the way back in November, 2009, my Forbes column explained that organizations approach innovation entirely wrong- trying far too hard to build on historical company strengths, which leads to weak extensions that fail to generate sustainable growth.  In November, 2011, my Forbes column identified the “killer comments” that leaders used to stop innovation.  Fast Company’s list is remarkably similar to that 2011 column, though it is a shorter list.  In June, 2015, my Forbes column described how HR best practices are designed to limit diversity in thinking- and always lead to killing innovation projects.  Factually, as I wrote in February, 2011, almost nobody would hire the next Steve Jobs if he applied for a job!

Quite simply, we have built organizations that rigidly adhere to continuing past processes, and are hard wired to resist innovation.  This phenomenon has been around for a long time, even though Fast Company just discovered it, and I’ve been writing about it for 9 years. Give my past columns a read and you’ll be forewarned of the risks to brainstorming, or throwing together innovation teams, without a system of new thinking.

Fortunately, smart leaders today see that by focusing on external data and cleverly using outside thinkers, innovation can create a high-growth future.  The approach I’ve been teaching organizations for years.  Only by overcoming outdated, historical management practices can a modern organization thrive.  You can do it- if you smartly use trends and new approaches.

What Business Leaders Can Learn From Bitcoin Fanatics

What Business Leaders Can Learn From Bitcoin Fanatics

What Business Leaders Can Learn From Bitcoin Fanatics

On August 15, Bitcoin rose to $4,000, I wrote a column about the crypto-currency. At the time, I thought Bitcoin was reasonably obscure, and I doubted there would be many readers. I was amazed when the column went semi-viral, and it has had almost 350,000 reads. But even more amazing was that the column generated an enormous amount of feedback. From email responses to Facebook remarks and Tweets I was inundated with people who, largely, wanted my head.

I found this confounding and fascinating. Why would an article that simply said a crypto-currency was speculative draw such an enormous response? And why such hostility? Just as I had not anticipated much readership, I certainly did not anticipate the reaction. These factors led me to research Bitcoin owners, and develop some theories on why Bitcoin is such a big deal to its enthusiasts.

1 – Bitcoin owners want the value to increase

I made the mistake of thinking of Bitcoins as a form of cash. Something to be spent. But I discovered most owners are holding Bitcoins as an asset. Because there are technical limits on how many Bitcoins can be created, and how quickly, these owners see the possibility of Bitcoin value increasing. As “investors” in Bitcoins, they don’t want anything (like a negative column) to put a damper on Bitcoin’s ability to rise.

Such speculation is not uncommon. Many people buy land, gold, silver and diamonds because they expect limited supply, and growing demand, to cause the value to rise. Other people buy Andy Warhol prints, vintage automobiles, signatures of historical people or baseball cards for the same reason. I prefer to call this speculation, but these people refer to themselves as investors in rare assets. Bitcoin investors see themselves in this camp, only they think Bitcoins are less risky than the other assets.

Regardless the nomenclature, anyone who is buying and holding Bitcoins would be unhappy to hear that the asset is risky, or potentially a bad holding. But unlike all those other items I mentioned, Bitcoins are not physical. To some extent merely owning the other assets has a certain amount of its own reward. One can enjoy a diamond ring, or a Warhol print on the wall while waiting to learn if its value goes up or down. But Bitcoins are just computer 1s and 0s, and really a new kind of asset (crypto-currency.) These investors are considerably younger on average, a bit more skittish, and considerably more outspoken regarding the future of their investment – and those who would be negative on Bitcoins.

While wanting their asset value to rise makes sense, it is rare that speculators have been as passionate as those who responded on Bitcoin. I’ve written about many companies I feared would lose value, and thus were speculative, but those columns did not create the fervor with responses like those regarding Bitcoin

2 – Confusion between Bitcoin and Blockchain technology

Blockchain is the underlying technology upon which Bitcoins are created. I have now read a few hundred articles on Bitcoins and Blockchain.

I was struck at just how confusing authors on these topics can be. They will say the two are very different, but then go on at great length that if you believe in Blockchain you should believe in Bitcoins. Few columns on Blockchain don’t talk about Bitcoins. And all Bitcoin authors talk about the wonders of Blockchain.

There is no doubt that Blockchain technology is new to the scene, and shows dramatic promise. Many large organizations are investigating using Blockchain for uses from financial transaction clearing to medical record retention. This is serious technology, and as it matures there are a great many people working to make it as trustworthy as (no, more trustworthy than) the internet. Just as the web requires some rules about URLs, domain naming, page serving, data accumulation, site direction, etc. there are serious people thinking about how to make Blockchain consistent in its application and use – which could open the door for many opportunities to streamline the digital world and make our lives better, and possibly more secure.

There were many, many people who disliked my skeptical view of Bitcoins, and based their entire argument for Bitcoinvalue on their belief in Blockchain. I was schooled over and again on the strength of Blockchain and its many future applications. And I was told that Blockchain technology inherently meant that Bitcoins have to go up in value. Buying Bitcoins was frequently referred to as investing in “Internet 2.0” due to the Blockchain technology.

It is clear that without Blockchain you could not have Bitcoins. But the case demanding one owns Bitcoin because it is built on Blockchain (“the technology of the future” as it is referred to by many) is still being developed. To them I was the one who was confused, unable to see the future they saw built on Blockchain. There were hoards of people who were almost religious in their Bitcoin faith, indicating that there was yet still more underlying their passion.

3 – As trust in government declines, there is growing trust in technology

More than ever in modern history, people have little faith in their government. In the USA, favorable opinions of Congress and its leaders are nearly non-existent. And favorable opinions for the current President started out below normal, and have gotten considerably worse. It is reported now with some regularity that Americans have little trust in the President, Congress, Courts – and the Federal Reserve.

There were, literally, hundreds of people who sent messages talking about the failure of government based currencies. Most of these examples were South American, but still these people made the point, loudly and clearly, that governments can affect the value of their currency. Thus, these Bitcoin investors had lost faith in all government backed securities, including the U.S. dollar, euro, yen, etc. They believed, fervently, that only a currency based on technology, without any government involvement, could ever maintain its value.

Today if someone is asked to give personal information for a census on their city, county, state or country they will often refuse. They want nothing to do with giving additional information to their government.

But these same people allow Facebook, Google and Amazon to watch their most private communications. Facebook records their emotions, their personal interactions, friends, complaints and a million other things going on in users’ lives to develop profiles of what is interesting to them in order to send along newsfeeds, information and ads. Google has recorded every search everyone has ever done, and analyzes those to develop profiles of each person’s interests, concerns, desires and hundreds of other categories to match each with the right ad. Amazon watches every product search made, and everything purchased to profile each person in order to push them the right products, entertainment, news and ads. And they all sell these profiles, and a lot of other personal information, to a host of other companies who do credit ratings, develop credit card offerings and push their own items for sale.

People who have no faith at all in government, and don’t believe government entities can make their lives better, leave their cookies on because they trust these tech companies to use technology to make their lives better. They believe in technology. Are these folks losing privacy? Maybe, but they see a direct benefit to what the technology operated by these tech companies can do for their lives.

For them, Bitcoin represents a future without government. And that clearly drives passion. Blockchain is a bias free, regulator free technology platform. Bitcoin is a government free form of currency, unable to be manipulated by the Federal Reserve, Exchequer of the currency, European Central Bank, Congress, Presidents, the G7, or anyone else. For the vocal Bitcoin owners, they see in Bitcoin a new future with far less government involvement, based on Blockchain technology. And they trust technology far more than they trust the current systems. They claim to not be anarchists, but rather believers in technology over human government, and in some instances even religion.

Leadership lessons from my Bitcoin journey

Often we try to explain away feedback, especially negative feedback or feedback that is hard to interpret, with easy answers. Such as, “they just want their asset to go up in value.” That is a big mistake. If the feedback is strong, it is really worth digging harder to understand why there is passion. Never forget that every piece of negative feedback is a chance to learn and grow. It is almost always worth taking the time to really understand not only what is being said, but why it is being said. There could be a lot more to the issue than face value.

If things are confusing, it is important to sort out the source of the confusion. If I’m talking about a currency, why do they keep talking about the technology? Saying “they don’t get it” misses the point that maybe “you don’t get it.” It is worth digging into the confusion to try and really understand what motivates someone. Only by listening again and again and again, and trying to really see their point of view, can you come to understand that what you think is confusing, to them is not. They aren’t confused, they see you as confused. Until you resolve this issue, both parties will keep talking right past each other.

You cannot lead if you do not understand what other people value. Their belief system may not match yours, and thus they are reaching very different conclusions when looking at the same “facts.” While I may trust the Fed and the ECB, and even banks, if others don’t then they may well have a very different view of the future.

When leaders lose the faith of those they are supposedly leading, unexpected outcomes will occur. Leaders cannot lead people who don’t trust them. Using the power of their office to force their will on others, and forcing conformance to existing processes, methods and systems can often lead to strong negative reactions. People may have no choice short-term but to do as instructed, but they may well be plotting (investing) longer term in a very different future. Failing to see the passion with which they are seeking that different future will only cause the leadership gap to widen, and shorten the time to a disruptive event.

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Understand Growth Stalls So You Can Avoid GM, JCPenney and Chipotle

Understand Growth Stalls So You Can Avoid GM, JCPenney and Chipotle

Understand Growth Stalls So You Can Avoid GM, JCPenney and Chipotle

Companies, like aircraft, stall when they don’t have enough “power” to continue to climb.
Everybody wants to be part of a winning company.  As investors, winners maximize portfolio returns.  As employees winners offer job stability and career growth.  As communities winners create real estate value growth and money to maintain infrastructure.  So if we can understand how to avoid the losers, we can be better at picking winners.
It has been 20 years since we recognized the predictive power of Growth Stalls.  Growth Stalls are very easy to identify.  A company enters a Growth Stall when it has 2 consecutive quarters, or 2 successive quarters vs the prior year, of lower revenues or profits.  What’s powerful is how this simple measure indicates the inability of a company to ever grow again.
Growth stall image showing common outcome is bankruptcy

Only 7% of the time will a company that has a Growth Stall  ever grow at greater than 2%/year.  93% of these companies will never achieve even this minimal growth rate.  38% will trudge along with -2% to 2% growth, losing relevancy as it develops no growth opportunities.  But worse, 55% of companies will go into decline, with sales dropping at 2% or more per year.  In fact 20% will see sales drop at 6% or more per year.  In other words, 93% of companies that have a Growth Stall simply will not grow, and 55% will go into immediate decline.

Growth Stalls happen because the company is somehow “out of step” with its marketplace.  Often this is a problem with the product line becoming less desirable.  Or it can be an increase in new competitors.  Or a change in technology either within the products or in how they are manufactured.  The point is, something has changed making the company less competitive, thus losing sales and/or profits.

Unfortunately, leadership of most companies react to a Growth Stall by doubling down on what they already do.  They vow to cut costs in order to regain lost margin, but this rarely works because the market has shifted.  They also vow to make better products, but this rarely matters because the market is moving toward a more competitive product.  So the company in a Growth Stall keeps doing more of the same, and fortunes worsen.

 But, inevitably, this means someone else, some company who is better aligned with market forces, starts doing considerably better.

This week analysts at Goldman Sachs lowered GM to a sell rating.  This killed a recent rally, and the stock is headed back to $40/share, or lower, values it has not maintained since recovering from bankruptcy after the Great Recession.  GM is an example of a company that had a Growth Stall, was saved by a government bailout, and now just trudges along, doing little for employees, investors or the communities where it has plants in Michigan.

tesla going up a hill

Tesla- enough market power to gain share “uphill”?

By understanding that GM, Ford and Chrysler (now owned by Fiat) all hit Growth Stalls we can start to understand why they have simply been a poor place to invest one’s resources.  They have tried to make cars cheaper, and marginally better.  But who has seen their fortunes skyrocket?  Tesla.  While GM keeps trying to make a lot of cars using outdated processes and technologies Tesla has connected with the customer desire for a different auto experience, selling out its capacity of Model S sedans and creating an enormous backlog for Model 3.  Understanding GM’s Growth Stall would have encouraged you to put your money, career, or community resources into the newer competitor far earlier, rather than the no growth General Motors.

This week, JCPenney’s stock fell to under $3/share.  As JCPenney keeps selling real estate and clearing out inventory to generate cash, analysts now say JCPenney is the next Sears, expecting it to eventually run out of assets and fail. Since 2012 JCP has lost 93% of its market value amidst closing stores, laying off people and leaving more retail real estate empty in its communities.

In 2010 JCPenney entered a Growth Stall.  Hoping to turn around the board hired Ron Johnson, leader of Apple’s retail stores, as CEO.  But Mr. Johnson cut his teeth at Target, and he set out to cut costs and restructure JCPenney in traditional retail fashion.  This met great fanfare at first, but within months the turnaround wasn’t happening, Johnson was ousted and the returning CEO dramatically upped the cost cutting.

The problem was that retail had already started changing dramatically, due to the rapid growth of e-commerce.  Looking around one could see Growth Stalls not only at JCPenney, but at Sears and Radio Shack.  The smart thing to do was exit those traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and move one’s career, or investment, to the huge leader in on-line sales, Amazon.com.  Understanding Growth Stalls would have helped you make a good decision much earlier.

This recent quarter Chipotle Mexican Grill saw analysts downgrade the company, and the stock took another hit, now trading at a value not seen since the end of 2012.  Chipotle leadership blamed bad results on higher avocado prices, temporary store closings due to hurricanes, paying out damages due to a “one time event” of hacking, and public relations nightmares from rats falling out of a store ceiling in Texas and a norovirus outbreak in Virginia.  But this is the typical “things will all be OK soon” sorts of explanations from a leadership team that failed to recognize Chipotle’s Growth Stall.

chipotle employeesPrior to 2015, Chipotle was on a hot streak.  It poured all its cash into new store openings, and the share price went from $50 from the 2006 IPO to over $700 by end of 2015; a 14x improvement in 9 years.  But when it was discovered that ecoli was in Chipotle’s food the company’s sales dropped like a stone.  It turned out that runaway growth had not been supported by effective food safety processes, nor effective store operations processes that would meet the demands of a very large national chain.

But ever since that problem was discovered, management has failed to recognize its Growth Stall required a significant set of changes at Chipotle.  They have attacked each problem like it was something needing individualized attention, and could be rectified quickly so they could “get back to normal.”  And they hoped to turn around public opinion by launching nationwide a new cheese dip product in 2017, despite less than good social media feedback on the product from early customers. They kept attempting piecemeal solutions when the Growth Stall indicated something much bigger was engulfing the company.

What’s needed at Chipotle is a recognition of the wholesale change required to meet customer demands amidst a shift to more growth in independent restaurants, and changing millennial tastes.  From the menu options, to app ordering and immediate delivery, to the importance of social media branding programs and customer testimonials as well as demonstrating commitment to social causes and healthier food Chipotle has fallen out-of-step with its marketplace.  The stock has now lost 66% of its value in just 2 years amidst sales declines and growth stagnation.

We don’t like to study losers.  But understanding the importance of Growth Stalls can be very helpful for your career and investments.  If you identify who is likely to do poorly you can avoid big negatives.  And understanding why the market shifted can lead you to finding a job, or investing, where leadership is headed in the right direction.

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